On March 13, just after midnight, three police officers entered Breonna Taylor’s home while she slept.* They had a no-knock warrant to search the property for drugs, which allowed them to forcibly enter the home without warning. The officers were investigating two suspects who were supposedly selling drugs out of another home, far from Taylor’s apartment. However, a judge granted the search warrant because the officers believed one of the suspects used Taylor’s apartment to collect packages.
Because the officers did not identify themselves as police, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, retrieved his legal and registered firearm to defend their home from what he understandably assumed was a robbery. Breonna Taylor was killed, shot at least eight times in her own home. There were no drugs found in the apartment. Her killers have not been arrested for her murder, and only one of them has been fired.
We have failed Breonna Taylor. Not only was she murdered because she was Black, but she was forgotten because she was a woman. In 1962, civil rights activist Malcolm X gave a speech, declaring, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
We have failed Breonna Taylor. Not only was she murdered because she was Black, but she was forgotten because she was a woman.
Breonna Taylor’s case is a textbook example of why it’s so important to understand the intersections between different factors of oppression. She is one victim in a long tradition of over-policing and violence against the Black community, which speaks to the racial implications of her case. But she is also a woman whose life was lost as a result of patriarchal violence. We cannot ignore the way these two factors—race and gender—work together to explain why this horrifying event happened. But more importantly, it explains our reaction to it as a society and why Breonna’s name has been erased from a narrative that keeps repeating itself. It explains why, according to Malcolm X, the Black woman was—and still is—the most unprotected person in America.
The Black woman’s fight for civil rights…
One important thing we don’t often realize about the push for Black liberation and racial equality is that it focused mainly on the liberation of the Black man and used that as an image. The iconic images of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike literally features protestors holding signs that read, “I am a man.” It’s an undeniably powerful image. But this declaration uses patriarchal rhetoric that unconsciously equates freedom and equality with manhood, and it equates human rights with male rights. The movement centered on the redemption of Black masculinity that had been suppressed by white supremacy, a system also controlled by men.
In a 1970 article published in the magazine Black World, Amiri Baraka stated, “We do not believe in the ‘equality’ of men and women… We could never be equals… nature has not provided thus. The brother says, ‘Let a woman be a [woman]… and let a man be a [man].’” Not only does this rhetoric explicitly condemn gender equality, but it uses the movement for Black liberation as a way to simply redefine the patriarchy, which inevitably excludes Black women from the fight.
The movement claimed to strive for the liberation of Black people, but in doing so, it failed to prioritize the unique needs of Black women. For example, the Nation of Islam emphasized the importance of strong Black manhood, but didn’t put the same stress on the importance of Black womanhood.
In her book, The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam, scholar Ula Y. Taylor examined the role of women in the Nation of Islam and their fight for individual freedom as women in a movement dominated by men. History focuses on the presence of men in the Nation of Islam—figures like Malcolm X, W.D. Fard, and Elijah Muhammad—ignoring the role that women played in the liberation of Black people. Taylor recovered some of the women whose name history has been erased or forgotten: Clara (Poole) Muhammad, Burnsteen Sharrieff, and Ethel Sharrieff. For example, Taylor stated that Clara Muhammad introduced her husband more commonly-known husband, Elijah, to Islam and helped shape it into what it would become, though history fails to acknowledge her presence.
We’re watching the same thing unfold today. A June 2020 article published in The New York Times examined the exclusion of Black women from social justice movements. The article claimed that Breonna’s name “remains largely disconnected” from conversations around George Floyd. Her exclusion is “the latest iteration of a longstanding issue” that Black women’s contributions receive less attention than that of men.
The narrative regarding the Nation of Islam focuses on Black male figures, but owes a significant amount of its progress to women. The Black Lives Matter movement has the same focus and owedness. Andrea Ritchie, a researcher at Barnard Center for Research on Women, said in an interview in the aforementioned New York Times article, “We’re not trying to compete with Floyd’s story, we’re trying to complete the story.” Black women show up for Black liberation and help push the narrative, but the narrative does not—and historically does not—return the favor.
Black women show up for Black liberation and help push the narrative, but the narrative does not—and historically does not—return the favor.
…And women’s rights
Black women were also excluded from and underrepresented in 19th century first-wave feminism. Feminist writings specifically described the experiences of white, middle-class women with a set of privileges and access to power that they failed to acknowledge.
When we think back on school lessons on the early women’s rights movements, we might remember Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But what about Sojourner Truth, who was born a slave and spoke publicly in the 19th century to express early Black feminist philosophies? What about Angela Davis and Audre Lorde? Or Pauli Murray, one of the founders of the National Organization for Women, whose work played a role in the Supreme Court’s decision to extend the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to women?
The first official women’s rights convention was in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York to address abolition and women’s suffrage. But there were no Black women present to represent their own rights. Not surprisingly or coincidentally, the organizers prioritized their rights as white women over those of the absent Black women.
We saw that again in 2019 when the organizers of the Los Angeles Women’s March didn’t invite any representatives from Black Lives Matter to speak at City Hall. BLM was cofounded by three Black women and its mission intended to draw connections between race, gender, and sexuality. When the BLM network responded to the lack of diversity, one news outlet labeled them as “resentful,” ignoring the exclusion.
These movements tended to equate “Black liberation” with liberation for Black men and “women’s rights” with the rights of white women. The needs of Black women were ignored. Historically, to be a Black woman is to exist at the very bottom of society, confronted with almost every form of oppression intertwined in a unique design to keep you there. It’s to stand at the forefront of the battle despite being last to reap the benefits. It’s to fight for your life, only to get lost in combat and then forgotten.
Historically, to be a Black woman is to exist at the very bottom of society, confronted with almost every form of oppression intertwined in a unique design to keep you there. It’s to stand at the forefront of the battle despite being last to reap the benefits. It’s to fight for your life, only to get lost in combat and then forgotten.
But history doesn’t forget
At the end of May—more than two months after Breonna Taylor’s death—the United States watched George Floyd struggle for breath under a police officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes after arresting him for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Protests broke out the next day. I remembered those same words by Malcolm X as I watched Floyd’s name and face spread across the country like wildfire while Taylor’s faded into the background, disrespected, unprotected, and neglected. His killers were arrested and charged and public figures made unbelievable financial contributions to the fight for justice. While the movement started out with the demand to #saytheirnames, it seemed like his name was always louder.
George Floyd deserves justice. But so does Breonna Taylor. I realized that the fight against a systemic tradition of systematic exclusion was systematically excluding half of its own victims. There’s a reason why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the figurehead for the Civil Rights Movement and it’s the same reason George Floyd became the catalyst in this new era. In the fight to preserve Black lives: we have ignored those of Black women.
I wrote before that we had failed Breonna and the countless other Black women who have fallen victim to their own country. Breonna Taylor served and protected her community, but her community failed to serve and protect her. But I realize now that to call that a failure implies that her country was designed to function in any other way. This country never intended to protect her—or any other Black woman—in the first place.
In the fight to preserve Black lives: we have ignored those of Black women.
So what now?
Now, we have to show up for Breonna Taylor. We keep putting pressure on state officials to arrest her killers. We keep the hashtag alive. We sign petitions, send emails to the Kentucky attorney general and governor, support local protests in Louisville by donating to the Community Bail Fund.
We stand up for Black women. We tell Breonna Taylor’s story. And in order to do that, we tell the story of how we got here. We educate ourselves on the historical struggle of Black women and other Women of Color in America. We acknowledge the experience and its unique needs. We read up on racial injustice and Black feminisms. We support Black-owned businesses. We stand up, speak up, and show up. Historically, Black women have been neglected, forgotten, and unprotected. If we want to do right by Breonna Taylor now, we keep saying her name, and if we want to do right by other Black women, we need to say all of their names.
*This article was originally published on July 21, 2020. New reporting on details of the case has since come out.